The science behind turkey hunting: Dr. Mike Chamberlain
While our natural resources of fish, game, and habitat face increased pressures from all angles, science remains the backbone of sustainable recreation. As springtime approaches and wild turkeys once again become top of mind for many outdoor enthusiasts, we want to acknowledge the tireless work of scientists like Dr. Mike Chamberlain — who, thankfully for hunters and game managers nationwide, never stops thinking about turkey behavior. Mike has focused his entire academic career on wild turkeys, their population dynamics, and habitat usage. He now leads the Wild Turkey Lab out of the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources.
Mike’s intense appreciation for the outdoors stemmed from an understanding of limited resources as a kid, namely time. “Growing up in suburban Virginia, my dad owned a mechanic business and worked constantly,” he remembers. “Back then, you couldn’t hunt on Sundays in the state of Virginia, so Saturdays were our day together. I actually started hunting because I just wanted to spend time with my dad. Pretty soon I just became fanatical about it.” Mike hunted anything that was in season — from deer and waterfowl to squirrels and crows. Once he left home for college, his appreciation for hunting shifted. “It became my release,” he explains. “It was my way to relax and escape the stress of my life. And that's what it still is for me to this day — it's therapy.”
The woods were a way for Mike to decompress from student life and studies throughout his undergraduate years, and upon entering grad school at Mississippi State University, Mike’s interest in wild turkeys reached new heights. “I had turkey hunted a number of times and killed quite a few birds. But I certainly wasn't a junkie yet,” he admits. “But I was given the option to study them and once I started catching birds, tracking them with telemetry, and learning about them, I realized how fascinating they are and I've been studying turkeys as a researcher ever since.” Mike’s deep dive into the ways of the wild turkey has persisted for nearly 30 years and taken him across the country as he studies these birds and their extremely diverse range.
Dr. Chamberlain’s research has covered many aspects of turkey life — from their calling and diet to roosting and breeding behavior. While Mike still makes time to hunt each season, he finds that it’s sometimes hard to delineate between leisure and work in the turkey woods — or perhaps even unnecessary. “I don't think the intellectual side of me ever fully turns off,” he admits. “A large part of why turkey hunting is so addictive is that it's a mental challenge.” Mike admits that while his research definitely makes him a better turkey hunter, the hunt is also crucial to his research. “There's only so much you can learn about turkeys, or any animal, from looking at data,” he explains:
“You can't really appreciate a turkey for what it is, in my opinion, if you don't hunt it. They teach you a whole new level of humility, and no amount of data on a computer screen could ever take the place of getting your ass kicked in the woods.”
Certainly for anyone in the business of understanding turkey survival, putting oneself in the position of a turkey predator is a pretty informative place to be. “Ultimately, time in the field is just more time observing," says Mike. "The more time you spend there, the more it will inform everything you know about the species you're after.”
Mike’s time afield and in the lab has given him a unique perspective on turkey movements, habitat use, and roosting behavior — leading to a number of specific hunting strategy insights:
“I’ve learned to be more patient and to think outside the box because it's not always black and white. I tend to be extremely flexible. I don't pigeonhole myself and get into a situation where I can't adjust quickly. No matter what you think they’re going to do, the birds don’t follow a script.”
If anything, Mike’s research has taught him that turkeys will constantly surprise you. “One of the more interesting things that we found is that hearing a tom in the same spot two mornings in a row doesn't mean it's the same bird,” Mike explains. “We've clearly shown that these birds will switch roosts regularly. In fact, if you hear a turkey in the same location on two consecutive days, it's quite likely that it's not the same bird.” Many turkey hunters focus their efforts around roost sites, and a good approach often means calculating the birds' movements once they fly down at first light. Mike's observed that roosting patterns may vary between individual birds, and are also dependent on the number of suitable roost sites in an area. “Some individual toms roost in the same location almost every night, but most of them don't,” he explains. If roost sites are limited in an area, he sees that birds will exhibit higher fidelity to an individual site.
Good roosting locations are defined by habitat and terrain, and Mike’s research has also revealed consistent roosting trends across the 5 wild turkey subspecies of the U.S. that are likely linked to these two main variables. “When you get into areas of Merriam, Gould, and Rio turkeys, roost sites are sometimes limited,” he explains. Merriam turkeys are found in Western states, often among open prairie and rocky terrain, while Rio Grande turkeys are native to the flat, arid scrub brush of Texas. Gould turkeys inhabit similarly harsh terrain in New Mexico and Arizona. In western habitats, fewer stands of trees means fewer trees of optimal size and height for roosting than your typical eastern turkey habitats. Thus, repeat roost site usage is more common for western subspecies. All turkeys show a stronger fidelity to roost sites with nearby water sources. “For the subspecies out west, where water and roost sites are often more scarce, birds can be more predictable in their movements if you take these habitat limitations into account,” Mike says. Back east, the Osceola and Eastern wild turkey subspecies tend to have a lot more roost sites and water sources to choose from, so they tend to be less predictable in their patterns.
When Mike gets the opportunity to hunt, his understanding of turkeys’ unpredictability has informed a less aggressive approach on the ground. “I may not orient my setup so closely to a roost location,” he says. “I may get a distance away, let the bird fly down and then decide what my play is based on how he behaves after he flies down. Because you can screw yourself when you assume what they’ll do, so I tend to be ready to make a change — more so now than, say, a decade ago.”
Maintaining his time in the woods forces Mike to slow down:
“I'm a pretty intense guy. I go pretty hard all the time. So turkey hunting puts me out in the woods at a time of the year when I'm the busiest. It forces me to take a breath and relax, and that's what’s most helpful for my work.”
Ultimately, any time in the woods is a reason for celebration, especially since most often the turkey wins. Even as one of the species’ closest observers, Mike never expects or wants to bag a bird on every hunt. “Usually I lose,” he says, “but that’s what makes it so special when I succeed.”
To date, Mike has collaborated with many private landowners and government agencies to help inform our modern approach to wild turkey conservation. This spring, stay looped into Mike and his work at the Wild Turkey Lab as he works to safeguard and foster flourishing turkey populations nationwide.
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